In a way, the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower and the three cruisers, four destroyers and nine Carrier Air Wing 3 squadrons that spent much of this winter out at sea have been running scrimmages to prepare for the big game, said Rear Adm. Scott Robertson, the strike group’s commander.
The big game is the Eisenhower Carrier Strike Group’s departure Wednesday on deployment. But those scrimmages, which the Navy calls COMPTUEX — a training exercise for composite units — came with some differences.
“COMPTUEX provided graduate-level training that simulates the full spectrum of operations, low intensity to high-end combat,” Robertston said. Low intensity, for example, includes humanitarian missions; high-end, on the other hand, is the kind of great-power confrontation with Russia or China that is increasingly the focus of U.S. strategic thinking.
The exercises included live fire onshore, with the strike group’s sailors providing over-the-horizon targeting and directing combat aircraft in close-air support for SEALs onshore.
In addition, the strike group practiced the complexities of coordinated operations with an expeditionary strike force of an amphibious assault ship and the Marines they bring to hostile shores.
That practice was with a virtual expeditionary force — ships and Marines that lived within the computer screens, software and radio communications systems of the Eisenhower strike group.
The Eisenhower strike group also practiced operating with another carrier-centered task force — though this one, like the expeditionary group, was virtual. Such combined strike group operations are what the most intensive confrontation with great power navies would almost certainly involve.
At the heart of much of the strike group did was what the Navy calls LVC training, for “live, virtual, and constructive.” It’s a mix of operating real ships and aircraft with virtual ones.
To practice the most intensive kind of combat, it can be tough to bring together all the fighter aircraft that might attack a carrier, Robertson said. But engaging with a relatively small number of real fighters or ships while radars and other sensors showed several more was a good way of practicing how to scramble in response, Robertson said.
“We had some days when the weather was really bad for flying, but we could run large attacks on radar that felt like the real thing,” he said.
The Eisenhower strike group’s COMPTUEX scrimmages also included operations with NATO’s Sea Centre of Excellence in Norfolk.
These involved practicing NATO communications procedures that differ a bit from U.S. Navy methods, mainly because they’d involve long-distance transmissions from NATO’s London-based Allied Maritime Command or its Naval Striking and Support Forces operation in Portugal. This effort included working with different messaging formats, chat capabilities and security measures.
“This was a really good start; we got some great operating lessons out of it,” said Royal Navy Commodore Tom Guy, deputy director of Combined Joint Operations at the Sea Centre of Excellence.
Both NATO and the Navy have stepped up their focus on the North Atlantic in recent months, with the establishment of NATO’s Joint Force Command in Norfolk and the Navy’s decision to revive the Atlantic Fleet, renaming and refocusing its Norfolk-based Fleet Forces Command.
In the same way, COMPTUEX’s work with SEALs reflects a new strategic concern with great power confrontation, as special warfare operations strike a new balance with their heavy emphasis on counter-terrorism operations that dates from the 9-11 attacks two decades ago, said Capt. Donald G. Wetherbee, Commodore, Naval Special Warfare Group 2.
For Robertson, who is leading the Eisenhower strike group on its deployment after the carrier spent just six months at home, COMPTUEX marked the end of a months-long training program. The destroyers and one of the two carriers in the current strike group were not part of the Eisenhower’s group in its previous, seven-month deployment.
The months since the Eisenhower’s return started with what Robertson described as a naval version of the start of a preseason football camp, with individual ships drilling and practicing their specialties before doing team drills, while strike group ships and aircraft drilled on operating together. COMPTUEX ran through a wide variety of scenarios, designed and run by another carrier group, which also assessed the Eisenhower strike force’s performance.
The bottom line, said Robertson: “We’re ready to deploy.”
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